Friday 13 July 2007

Review: Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne

This is Verne's famous "lost novel". It was one of his earliest efforts and was rejected for publication when written in 1863. The manuscript was rediscovered in the 1990s and saw its first publication then.

The story is set a century in the author's future, in Paris in 1960. It is a world in which industry and commerce have triumphed to the extent that most of the creative arts are derided as useless or forgotten. The plot concerns an orphaned young poet, Michel Dufrenoy, who is a complete misfit in this world, and largely consists of tracking his futile efforts to find some gainful employment.

Along the way, Verne presents a picture of a future Paris, in social as well as technical terms, and the fascination of the book is in seeing what he got right – and what he didn't. On the credit side can be listed the dominance of major corporations over governments; the growth of commerce and the civil service in the city, pushing the poor to live on the outskirts; the sharp drop in the birth-rate within marriage, with a large proportion of births being illegitimate (women are displayed as lean and hard-headed; no longer curvaceous and romantic); the mechanisation of warfare; and various technical innovations such as the Metro, electric lighting, cars, computers and fax machines.

The mis-hits include a similar mixture of the broad sweep and the detail. Most poignantly, he envisages that the growth in the power of industry and commerce, and the interconnectedness of nations this would bring about, would make war obsolete, with armed forces being disbanded. He also has politicians losing so much power that they become unimportant, so elections die out. Despite this, he proposes much more central organisation of society, with a large civil service governing most activities (for instance, all theatres having salaried playwrights, whose job it is to produce anodyne productions which won't get anyone excited). Journalism as well as most arts dies out, except for that praising the achievements of industry. One baroque technical proposal is to use the old catacombs to store air under high pressure (pumped by a large number of windmills) which is then tapped to drive the Metro and other machinery throughout Paris. The canalisation of the Seine enables vast passenger ships to berth in the city. Despite the technical advances, he still has quill pens plus a huge ledger for a bank which is painstakingly kept up to date by hand. Surprisingly, there is no mention of aircraft.

Even in the misses, there are aspects which can be recognised. The strong central organisation and control, including the arts and the news media, is reminiscent of Soviet Russia, while feeding the populace mindless entertainment is not unknown in today's television and magazine offerings.

So much for the background – now to the story. This is quite promising at first, as the hero finds some like-minded individuals and has some amusing experiences in his efforts to fit in. He even falls in love. But the last part of the story becomes both less interesting and progressively darker in tone. In the end, it finishes in rather a rush with several plot threads left hanging. I had the impression that he had got tired of it and decided to finish it off quickly – or, perhaps, that he had backed the hero into a corner which he couldn't get him out of. Anyway, I found it disappointing.

Overall, this is something of a curio. Intriguing for its predictions, but of little merit as a story. Still, the first part of the book shows some of the story-telling flair which was later to make Verne famous.

1 comment:

Austin James Schock said...

I felt the exact same way about the ending of the story. It was a beautiful story. But the ending made me feel, Not just sad, But disappointed.